Malian and West African troops prepare to retake rebel-held northern Mali in 2013. A military victory would only be the first step, as the country must elect a new government and rebuild the trust destroyed by the north-south divide.
The Malian flag - a tricolour of red, gold and green - flutters in the breeze at the entrance to the Sixth Military Region's garrison at Sevaré, outside Mopti.
Behind the flagpole is a towering statue of Ba Lobbo, whose iron-fisted rule of the Fakala region in the 19th century the military still celebrates today.
To Ba Lobbo's right, six armoured cars are parked in the shade under tarpaulins, their short gun barrels protruding from their turrets like rhino horns.
A succession of junior officers bids us welcome after we show our crumpled laissez-passers from the defence ministry in Bamako.
We are driven along the dusty paths of the sprawling camp that is home to
a few hundred soldiers and their families. Snatches of music by Salif Keita and Alpha Blondy waft through the windows of the barracks, children play hide and seek around camouflaged military paraphernalia.
We continue our search for a senior officer who might be able to tell us about the progress of the military campaign to reconquer northern Mali.
Finally, deputy camp commander Colonel Khalifa Sodogo ushers us into his office at the edge of the camp and courteously explains why he is not authorised to talk about preparations for the military campaign.
Many things are changing in the army and we will soon see positive results, he assures us without going into details about confusing developments in the capital, Bamako.
There, the army appears to be under a divided command. Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of the 22 March putsch against President Amadou Toumani Touré, has been put in charge of the reform and restructuring of the 7,000-strong Malian army.
Those plans are said to include the arrival of a training squad from Europe, lots of shiny new military equipment and better communications and surveillance equipment.
But there is none of that here in Sévaré, just a few senior officers driving around in battered Mercedes.
A frisson of excitement had swept through town the day after we arrived with reports that soldiers near Mopti had arrested a French national, Ibrahim Ouattara, from Aubervilliers.
Ouattara and another French national had sneaked into Mali to set up a jihadist cell in Timbuktu, perhaps to help fend off the intervention or extend jihadist rule further south.
The Sévaré garrison is the most northerly position still controlled by Mali's national army, says defence minister Yamoussa Camara.
"When we regrouped from Gao [after it was seized by jihadists], the frontline was established at Sévaré. We try to reinforce our posi- tions to be ready on the field. As soon as we get more material, we send it there."
Part of the reason for that is as a deterrent, says Camara: "We think the rebels still have the capability to go further south and, for instance, take the city of Mopti."
Some 100km to the north of Mopti lies Niafunké, where Mali's legendary musician, the late Ali Farka Touré, was raised.
Another 150km north from there is the cultural centre of Timbuktu, now in the grip of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Mouvement pour l'Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l'Ouest (MUJAO) and fighters from Iyad Ag Ghali's Ansar Dine militia.
In July, the jihadist fighters shocked the people of Timbuktu and Islamic historians when, armed with pickaxes and hoes, they destroyed shrines at the city's 14th-century Djingareyber mosque.
"Human beings cannot be elevated higher than God," Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana told Radio France International.
Such desecration symbolises the clashes between Salafist fighters, taking inspiration from Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahabi sect, and the Sufi majority in Mali.
But it also points to the deepening arguments in Mali about the position of religion and politics – arguments that will not be settled by the looming intervention to reconquer the north, no matter how efficient the military planners predict the operation will be.
More than 300,000 people fled from northern Mali as Ansar Dine and their jihadist allies consolidated control.
Consolidation means the rigid application of sharia law, public floggings, the severing of hands and the destruction of ancient shrines.
Many of the southward-bound migrants have chosen to stop in Sévaré or in the ancient river port of Mopti, 15km across the causeway.
The foreign tourists, who used to queue for tours of Mopti's magnificent Grande Mosquée or to buy some of the terracotta pots being shipped along the Niger River, now steer clear.
There was just one other guest the optimistically named Y'a Pas de Problème hotel. To an extent, the arrivals from the north have given a fillip to the economies of Mopti and Sévaré in the absence of the euro-wielding tourists, but they too must find jobs and houses.
"The difficulties are just beginning," says Tata Touré Diarra, president of an umbrella group of civil society organisations in the Mopti region.
Mopti is already struggling to cope with health, education and housing demands of people displaced from the north.
The takeover in the north has set communities against each other, she explains.
The fate of her local butcher, known as Sourake, was a tragic harbinger.
He was killed on suspicion of having sympathies with the jihadists in the north simply because he was a Tuareg.
The jihadists have stepped up recruitment efforts, trying to win over all Malians, not just Tuaregs.
"My uncle made his nephews come to Mopti," says Diarra,"because he was scared they would join the MUJAO militia. They pay 300,000 CFA francs ($580) a month to their fighters – that's three times the wage of a teacher. In any case there are not many jobs in the north these days."
People in Mopti had little faith in the ability of the army to protect them, Diarra adds. "Since the fall of Moussa Traoré – for the last 20 years – the army has been gradually destroyed by corruption and nepotism."
People believe that the generals and the colonels did nothing about drug and people trafficking across the north because they were benefiting from it.
Neither do the putschists impress Diarra: "Now that the army is needed in the north, they are hiding in Kati [just 15km northwest of Bamako]. They have concentrated everything there – in terms of troops and the most import- ant weapons – to protect just one man, Captain Sanogo."
Men like Dibilla Moussa, the commander of the Ganda Koy militia, is also sceptical about the army.
The Ganda Koy is one of the militias set up by the Songhaï people of northern Mali to defend their communities from attack.
Its fighters have been based in Sévaré since the jihadist takeover of the north.
For many locals, they have become a more significant military presence on their raucous training runs through the town than the national army.
The proliferation of such ethnic militias is yet another security problem for the police and army. Moussa's fighters appear disciplined, but others are less so.
There were calls for reprisals after the murderous ambush of 80 soldiers at Aguelhok in January by the mainly Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA).
Moussa says his fighters are happy to cooperate with the army, whom he expects to give them new weapons.
They will need another three months of training before they go into battle, but it will be a long haul, he insists.
"Once the north is taken back and there is peace, we will not disband. That was our mistake in 2010. We want our militias to play a role in the security of the north."
This does not surprise or perturb defence minister Yamoussa Camara. From his colonial-era office in central Bamako, he has the herculean task of coordinating strategies between the fractured commands of the army, politicians in the transitional government and the would-be sponsors of the military campaign to retake the north.
"Everywhere, the army is meant to have the monopoly of violence and is in charge of security. But today is an extraordinary moment," explains Camara.
"While waiting for the army to make its move, the people organised themselves for self defence." That will change once the army launches its campaign, he says: "We cannot allow militias but they can integrate into the army if they wish."
The question of timing of the military campaign is central to all the discussions in Bamako. It is evident that Camara and the rest of the transitional government under President Dioncounda Traoré want to launch it as soon as possible.
His argument is that the longer action is delayed, the more the jihadists can consolidate and change the political and economic dynamics of northern Mali and the rest of the Sahel.
"We might have been quicker if we didn't have to coordinate actions with our partners in ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States]," says Camara.
It is unclear how that coordination will work, with many of Mali's soldiers based at Kati and still loyal to Captain Sanogo, who is sceptical about the West African intervention.
The concept of operations agreed by Mali, ECOWAS and the African Union sees some 5,000 Malian troops leading the military campaign backed by 3,300 West African soldiers.
But two of Mali's best-trained units – a special forces unit and an airborne battalion – were dis- banded after clashes in April.
The 'reds' were mainly supporters of the deposed President Touré and infantry soldiers; the'greens', were loyal to Sanogo.
Camara insists: "The army has not collapsed. We need to train soldiers and restock equipment."
A bigger problem is to disrupt criminal-political connections: "The extremists have lots of money because they are working with the drug smugglers. Using that money, they can compete with state companies on food supply. That can persuade people to accept them."
There are even more immediate considerations, says Oumou Sall, the mayor of Goundam, who fled to Bamako.
Just south of Timbuktu, Goundam has been in rebel hands since April and MUJAO forces have torn the city apart. Sall says that a Chadian man runs the MUJAO forces in the city.
"When we come back it will not be easy to forgive," she says. "They robbed and beat and raped us."
Whatever the difficulties of the intervention, rebuilding societies will be much harder. "I am mixed, my mother is Tuareg, my father, Peul, and I grew up among Songhaï," says Sall.
"They have destroyed social trust. We shared the honey and the bitter fruit, now they have broken everything."
THE LIMITS OF INTERVENTION
Sharing those concerns, an MP from Timbuktu, El Hadji Baba Haïdara, says the international presence in Mali will be needed long after the reconquest of the north.
"The problems in African countries always start in the aftermath of presidential elections [...] the results here must be verified and certified by the international community, which should control the election at all stages."
Even before the military starts marching north, debate is raging about when and how to hold elections.
Many Malians are uneasy about the Traoré government embarking on a massive foreign-backed intervention with no popular mandate.
US deputy assistant secretary of state Reuben Brigety says the restoration of legitimate government must be a priority and the aim should be "to hold democratic elections by April 2013".
For Malian politicians, that looks wildly optimistic. Few think the military campaign will be over by April, some believe it may not have properly started by then.
Concern is growing about the dysfunctional relations between Captain Sanogo, Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and President Traoré.
Almost everyone rules out elections now, which would mean holding them separately in the south and north: "That would enshrine an unacceptable partition," says Haïdara.
Instead, what Haïdara and activists want is a national dialogue about Mali's political future.
It should be a means of addressing inequities in all the regions, according to Bamako-based media entrepreneur Mahamadou Camara: "Decentralisation is good in theory but it is not being applied. We have to discuss these key questions publicly: how long should the transition be? Who should be in charge and how should we re- structure the army?"
Across the pages of Bamako's partisan press and cafes in the capital, there is wide agreement on the idea of a national conference.
But there is also a deep suspicion that the last thing wanted by the fragile triumvirate ruling Mali would be an open discussion about the best form of government for the country●